Green buildings: A sustainable path to student housing?

The increase in African urbanisation and shortage of campus accommodation due to the growth of the student population are making the adoption of green building practices an environmentally friendly and sustainable path to resilient, affordable housing.

The significant negative impact current conventional construction practices have on the environment combined with the shortage of student housing on university campuses necessitate sustainable approaches such as green buildings, Professor Ahmed Attia, the head of faculty affairs in the faculty of medical technology at the University of Tripoli in Libya, told University World News.

“Affordable, accessible, efficient, climate-friendly and sustainable university accommodations are vital for quality academic output and to ensure that students have a positive and successful learning experience,” Attia said.

Several studies and reports support this view. In the study, ‘Main characteristics of African cities’ published in the Journal of Research in Humanities and Social Science in 2022, the researchers argue that poorly controlled urbanisation in Africa causes concern.

“The management of large African cities must necessarily go through a drastic mastery of the spatial extension of metropolises and their decongestion through the creation of new dynamic cities,” the study concludes.

The organisation Architecture 2030 reports on its website that building operations, materials and construction generate 40% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions annually.

Perceptions about sustainability

In an article on student housing trends for 2023, the housing organisation Booking Ninjas stated: “In addition to offering accommodation, residence halls have a special chance to operate as sustainability training centres. The environments in which students live have an influence on their knowledge and comprehension of sustainability.”

Research carried out in 2021 by Commercial Property Kenya indicated that tertiary institutions across the African continent on average can only accommodate between 10% and 25% of their students in campus accommodation.

Countries such as Rwanda, Niger, Sudan and Mali fall closer to the 10% mark, whereas countries such as Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa are closer to 25%, due to higher government spending on education along with private-sector investment in student housing.

Are green buildings ideal?

Michael Apprey, a senior laboratory instructor at Ho Technical University in Ghana, told University World News that green buildings can be an ideal option for student housing in Africa. He co-authored an article on student perceptions about green building published in Frontiers in Engineering and Built Environment on 30 January 2023.

“Green buildings are designed to be sustainable and energy-efficient, which can reduce energy consumption and operating costs over the long term,” Apprey said. “They can also provide a healthier and more comfortable living environment for students, which can enhance their overall well-being and academic performance.” However, the benefits should be weighed up against the local context to see whether green buildings are feasible, he said.

Dr Abel Owotemu, director and founder of Greenage Development Managers Limited in Nigeria, a provider of on-campus residential and academic accommodation infrastructure in partnership with tertiary institutions, said that “green buildings are an ideal option for students’ housing in Africa due to heavy resource utilisation and maintenance requirements for student housing infrastructure”.

Expanding further, Professor Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, head of the botany department of the National Research Centre (NRC) in Cairo, said: “Conventional student housing consumes a lot of electricity and water and releases carbon dioxide gases into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and air pollution. Green student housing saves energy, water and materials and emits few harmful substances.”

Green student housing status in Africa

Owotemu said that green student housing adoption in Africa is growing, with opportunities to retrofit old buildings or add features to meet green building standards and develop new green student housing infrastructure.

“Green buildings in Africa are being driven by private developers in partnership with universities,” he said. “This has become a common trend with developers in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana, where most of the legacy institutions (first-generation universities) and upcoming private universities have retrofitted existing structures or have new green building infrastructure under construction.”

Details can be gathered from the activities of property developers, including Acorn in Kenya, Greenage in Nigeria, Respublica in South Africa and Eris in Ghana to just mention a few, Owotemu explained.

It does not include small landholders or mixed-use young professional and student housing outside the university community that also caters to students and is sometimes built according to green standards, Owotemu said.

Challenges and viable solutions

Apprey said that establishing green student housing can face several challenges, including high upfront costs. The initial costs of constructing green student housing can be higher than those of traditional buildings.

“The cost of materials, design and technology can be prohibitive, especially in low-income areas where funding for student housing may already be scarce,” he said. “Building green student housing requires specialised knowledge and skills, which may be limited in some areas, which can make it difficult to find qualified contractors, architects and engineers to design and construct the buildings.”

He said many people may not be aware of the benefits of green student housing and may not see the value in investing in these buildings. This can make it difficult to secure funding or public support for these projects. Building codes and regulations may not always support green building practices because regulations may not allow for the use of certain materials, designs or technologies – which can hinder the construction of green buildings.

“In some areas, there may be limited access to renewable energy sources or sustainable materials, which can make it difficult to construct green buildings,” Apprey explained. “These challenges can vary, depending on the location and context, and require careful planning and execution to address effectively.”

Echoing Apprey’s views, Owotemu indicated that the challenges in establishing green student housing in Africa are usually linked to the initial high cost and lack of readily available unique features and building materials that are typically required for green buildings to meet certification standards.

Local production an alternative

Owotemu suggested that an alternative would be sourcing local alternatives and, where not available, engaging with local green building councils or professionals to locally produce the materials.

“Also, government policy could be targeted at creating tax and import fee exemptions for green buildings and materials required for such buildings,” Owotemu pointed out. “Most universities have not formally adopted green building standards but, in view of their collaboration via joint ventures and public-private partnerships with private developers, the need to adopt green building standards and sustainability into their curricula is becoming more pronounced.”

He said that Greenage forms a core part of programmes to drive the adoption of sustainability as part of partnership requirements.

Apprey said that facing the challenges of green building in Africa requires a collaborative, multi-stakeholder approach that addresses regulatory, capacity, financial and awareness barriers. “By working together, stakeholders can promote sustainable building practices that benefit the environment, communities, and the economy.”